Ask the Expert — April/May 2015

You Ask Expert Poultry Questions, We Give Expert Poultry Answers

Ask the Expert — April/May 2015

Starlings And Sparrows

I have a few chickens and ducks here in upstate New York. I always let my birds outside during the day no matter what the weather. And during the summer a few starlings and sparrows would fly in and check it out and fly back out.

But this winter when the temps went to single digits it seems like these birds are spending more time in there. They hang out during the day and at night when I close them up they hide and spend the night.

Now I have poop all over the place and am wondering if this is bad for my girls? I know that closing the door would be the easy solution but then the girls will be shut out.  I just want to know if these other birds are a hazard.

— Bonnie Spencer


Hi Bonnie,

This is an interesting question. On one hand, you’ve got the outbreak of Avian flu in the Northwest that’s caused by migrating birds. On the other hand, if you can, I believe it’s best to free range your chickens.

When that happens, there’s no way to limit contact with wild birds. I actually had a similar problem last year with wrens that nested in my coop.

I’m an avid bird watcher and I didn’t have the heart to hurt the wrens. (I found their nest after the chicks had hatched.) So I let them be and the wrens success-fully raised their clutch.

We recently built a new coop and I do still like to leave the door fully open on good days, but I have built a smaller side door that we use during the winter and on bad weather days.  That way the chickens have full access to the outside, but we prevent the weather and critters from entering the coop.

So, my suggestion is to build a smaller door, if you can, for the chickens. Also, try not to leave food and water in the coop during the day. That encourages visits from local wildlife.

I hope this is helpful!


Are Laying Pellets Worth It?

I usually feed my hens a mixture of cracked corn or scratch grains with lay-ing pellets. I would like to know if I am wasting money buying the pellets. Does it help then lay more? Are they going to lay better with it?

Is it even safe and healthy to feed them this manufactured feed? Thanks.

— Mike Sims


Hi Mike,

I like to compare chicken nutrition to human nutrition, and I think that will help show the value of a commercial ration. Feeding the chickens corn, or scratch grains, is similar to a human who only eats bread (made mostly of flour, which is finely ground grain). There is nothing wrong with bread, but it’s not a complete diet, and eventually, you’ll likely notice some deficiencies.

The pellets should contain all the different nutrients that we know are important for good health for a chicken (vitamins, minerals, adequate protein, etc.), so you could compare this to a human eating a variety of foods.

As a specific example, corn usually contains between 8-10% protein, which is pretty low for a hen. It is recommended that they should have 14-16% protein, so corn won’t really provide enough.

Depending on your goal for the chickens, I don’t think pellets are a waste of money. I guess if you only want them as pets, then pellets will cost more than grains. Assuming the hens are otherwise healthy, and fairly young, they should lay more eggs when fed pellets.

As part of the pelleting process, the feed is heated so any bacteria are usually destroyed. Pelleted feeds should be safe and healthy. There is always a chance of a problem, but there are molds, mycotoxins, etc. that can be on grains, too.

I’m assuming that this is their only feed source. If the chickens are free ranging, and if they have a variety of insects, worms, and plants available, then the hens “might” be able to have a balanced diet and get all the nutrients they need. I’m not sure where you are located. Here in Wisconsin, bugs and worms are in pretty short supply this time of year!

So unless the hens are able to range and subsidize their feed with other nutrients, I think they will be healthier with a complete diet. They should lay more eggs, too, though there are other factors that could influence this (age, genetics, daylength, etc.). Good luck with the flock!


Worming Chickens

What is the best way to worm chickens that are laying? What are the best products and do you with hold eggs and dispose of them? Can you eat the eggs while worming or have antibiotics in the water?

— Danielle Stohr


Hi Danelle,

Your question about worming is interesting because so many people have different opinions on the topic. To prove this, we asked some of our bloggers for their advice and have included their thoughts below.

Lisa Steele says:

“I would never worm unless a vet had confirmed the worms. A healthy hen can handle a normal parasite load just fine. Even a few worms in the poop just shows the chicken’s body is dispelling the worms on its own. The only two commercial products I know of that you can eat the eggs while you’re treating are VermX and the wormer from Poultry Booster Products. I also recommend using pumpkin seeds and garlic as a natural preventive a few times a year. Any squash, melon or cucumber seeds also are natural wormers and fed year-round a wonderful preventive.”

Alexandra Douglas says:

“For chickens that are laying, you can always go to the vet and get a fecal to see what treatments would be best for your bird. Otherwise, there is a  wonderful wormer called Wazine and it has no withdrawal. There is a myth that Wazine has a withdrawal for two weeks and it has been proven recently.

“You can get your eggs when the bird has been wormed, however, there are certain worms that will get in the egg itself so break open a few eggs to check them out prior. This is the same with antibiotics, however, always ask your veterinarian as all birds are not alike.”

Rhonda Crank says:

“Personally, I am against the use of any chemical on our farm. We worm all of our animals, including our chickens with diatomaceous earth. In one gallon of water, I add three tablespoons of raw, organic apple cider vinegar and three tablespoons of DE. I offer this for a full seven days. The first two to three days they gobble it up, after that, they seem to drink at their normal rate. At the same time I do this, I sprinkle a little DE on their feed. I can say that in my 30-plus years of having chickens, I have never had an issue with worms.”

Armani Tavares says:

“I wouldn’t eat the eggs from birds on chemical wormers or antibiotics. But some may be reportedly safe to do so.  Some natural ‘safe’ wormers are sulfur supplementation, garlic, pumpkin and squash seeds, nasturtium seeds and leaves, celery, carrots, DE and sea mineral mix (according to SeaAgri ’s website), or just DE. Probiotics can at least help the birds tolerate or come into balance.”

Good luck with your flock!


What Incubator Should I Buy?

I would like to buy an incubator to start raising chicks. Do you recommend any brand name or types that you prefer? I don’t want to get stuck with one that doesn’t break down easily. Thanks for any help you can provide.

— Cindy Zappe


Hi Cindy,

Incubators come in many types: Styrofoam, plastic, and cabinet. You want an incubator that regulates humidity and temperature well. I would recommend the Genesis Hova-Bator if you are looking to spend less money. I have had some that lasted five years with no problems. However, if you want to get somewhat of an upgrade and a reliable incubator, I would recommend the Brinsea products. They are a bit more expensive but definitely worth the money.

I hope this is helpful. Good luck with your new chicks!


What Breed Is This?

What Breed of Chicken
Photo courtesy of Kate Churchill

About six months ago, I picked up a hen with five others. They were advertised as Silkies. I do not usually purchase mixed breed chickens but when we got there to pick them up, we found them and about 50 other chickens cramped into a tiny, dusty coop. We chose to take the six birds we called for out of there, and with good care, they now are very healthy.

We were able to determine approximately what the breeding of the others was, but Sheila (as we call her) has us stumped. Could you tell me anything about what her breeding may be? She has five toes and feather feet. Her feathers are the type of normal chickens, not Silkies. I am quite sure she is at least a quarter Sultan, but I don’t know. Any ideas?

— Kate Churchill


Hi Kate,

Sheila is such a beautiful chicken! The lacing on her feathers is great! To answer your question about her breed, it looks like she’s a Silkie/Cochin mix. The dark skin comes from being a Silkie. And her feathering comes from her Cochin side. I hope this solves the mystery. Have fun with Sheila!


Incubation Timing

I would like to hatch my own eggs to grow my flock. I’d like to add an additional 10 birds at minimum. My current four hens are only laying three to four eggs a day. I want to put them in the incubator at the same time to get all to hatch together as close as possible. How long can I leave the eggs out (either in room temp or the nesting boxes) before they go bad until I can collect enough? Is there a time limit to get the eggs in the incubator?

— Dean LeBlanc


Hi Dean,

We recommend seven to 10 days of storage prior to incubating. After seven days, the hatch rate will go down. So, we like to collect for five days and then set them for best results.


Strange Thing In A Nest

Strange Egg
Photo courtesy of Nancy Way

I found this in the nest. Can you tell me what it is? It felt rubbery and there was no liquid in it when I cut it open. Any help you can give me will be appreciated. I enjoy your column.

— Nancy Way


Hi Nancy,

What you found in the nest is called a lash egg. It really isn’t an egg at all. Lash eggs are produced when the hen sheds part of the lining of her oviduct. This is a hereditary condition that causes a hormone imbalance and it is not treatable. Stress can trigger this condition if a hen already has the genetic predisposition.

Lash eggs used to not be so common, but with inbreeding and lack of genetic diversity, it is becoming more common. Some chickens will never lay eggs again after passing a lash egg. Others may take a break and then resume normal laying again.

I hope this is helpful!


Colorful Eggs

Colorful Eggs

We raise Rhode Island Reds and Ameraucana chickens. We got a strange colored egg (above) and wanted to share it with you. This is the first time for them to lay. What would cause this egg to look like this?

— Patricia Snyder


Hi Patricia,

Wow! Those eggs are beautiful! Chickens lay lots of eggs throughout their lives and sometimes you get a fluke. It’s really not something to worry about especially since this is a new layer. With “newbies” they have to go through a few stages before they get everything right. According to our poultry expert Alexandra Douglas, this chicken “missed her paint factory.” But we think the results are gorgeous! Just be sure to keep your hens on a proper diet with calcium and grit available free choice.

Good luck with your flock!


Deep Litter or Cement?

What are the pros and cons of a dirt floor vs. a cement floor? Also, do wooden walls need some kind of protection when using deep litter?

— Ann Schrag


Good choice on the deep litter; however, a concrete floor is quite preferable for several reasons. Concrete resists burrowing animals, so there is added security to the coop, but also concrete is cleanable — you can’t clean dirt.

The bonus to a dirt floor is, well … it’s dirt cheap. Treating of wood inside the coop, in contact with litter or not, is best sealed with regular exterior grade latex paint. Painting surfaces closes pores in the wood that would have allowed mites and infectious organisms to hide. Painted surfaces are also far easier to clean.


Clip The Umbilical Cord?

Help! I am new to incubating chicks and this is my first hatch. I have one that hatched today and still has the cord attached. I think it will eventually fall but do I need to apply an antiseptic to the area and if so what kind and how often? Do I need to put something on it to help it dry? There is no foul smell and signs of infection so I think I am early enough to prevent infection.

— Barbara Guidry


Hi Barbara,

If it’s just a small piece, I’d probably leave it alone. If it seems to be bothering the chick, you could clip it off. Don’t pull it. Hopefully, it’s on a fairly clean substrate, so it  doesn’t get an infection. You could apply an iodine solution (such as betadine) if you have it. Congratulations on your new chick. I hope you have a few more on the way!


Ducks Versus Chickens

We have both ducks and chickens and the ducks lay every single day no matter what one from each of them. And the chickens do not do that at all. We get 10 eggs some days and 18 the other. So my question is, why don`t the chickens lay one egg each every day like the ducks? Why is that such a big difference?

— Julia Donoso


Hi Julia,

That’s an excellent question! Both chickens and ducks are raised for many different reasons; one of which being egg production. When given a good environment to live in and good nutrition, then egg production, whether it’s a chicken or a duck, really depends on the breeds you raise. Chickens especially have been bred over the years for certain traits, egg production being one of them. Mediterranean breeds are especially efficient layers. Many heavy breeds are good layers that keep producing through the winter. In ducks, often the smaller bantams lay fewer eggs than the larger breeds. So to sum it up, beyond how they are raised, it’s really the breed or type of bird you raise that determines how many eggs you’re going to get.


Crooked Toes?

My flock has a major problem with crooked toes that doesn’t appear until 3 months of age. I raise about 150 chicks each year in three standard breeds. I have no problem with my incubator. Chicks are healthy when they are born and hatch on day 20 and 21. My breeders are fed Purina layer feed with extra vitamins (Red Cell and probiotics) in the water and wheat germ and cod liver oil in their feed. The chicks are also fed Purina chick starter and flock raiser after six to seven weeks. They also get the Red Cell and probiotics daily. I hatch in November through January, so the weather is cold in Wisconsin but my coop is heated. I use pine wood shavings as bedding. I clean the cement floor about once every two weeks and usually have one to three inches of litter on the floor. Can too many vitamins be a problem? I just sold 14 Australorps, one Black Spanish, and one Standard Salmon Faverolle, all with crooked toes. It is a bigger  problem with my Australorps than the Spanish and Faverolles. Every two years I introduce a new breeder male but the problem continues.

What else can I do?

— Jim Konkol


Hi Jim,

Thank you for the detailed description of your management. That helps give a good picture of the situation.

I could not find any reports of excess vitamins causing this problem. Generally, excess B vitamins (including riboflavin) are just excreted by the bird, so excesses aren’t generally a problem. I do think there is a possibility that different minerals could be interfering with proper bone growth, but I don’t think crooked toes would be the most common sign. I think you’d see more problems with rickets (soft bones), perosis (slipped tendon), or improper bone growth.

I think the first thing I would look at are brooding conditions. In some old research I found, cool brooding tempera-tures caused in increase in curled toes.  Other popular press books mention this, too. One study, for example, started the chicks out at about 95 degrees F, but lowered it about 8 degrees per week, rather than the 5 we would suggest, so that by week 4, the conditions were quite cool (about 70 degrees F).

They showed a significant increase in leg abnormalities, and in curled toes, specifically. Some have suggested that this may be the chicks are struggling to get under a heat source, and this causes strain on the toes. Another  suggestion is that cooler temperatures restrict blood flow, and that this interferes with proper mineral metabolism. Either way, the end result is that there is an increase in leg abnormalities.

So I guess I’d encourage you to try to increase the heat (or possibly the area that is being warmed) when brooding.  Hopefully, that will solve the problem.

Good luck!


Is it bad if there is white splatter around the nesting boxes?

Yes. The white splatter that you’re finding in the nest boxes is actually a combination of uric acid and urine salts called urates. It often appears as a white, pasty cap on a chicken’s droppings. Sometimes, chickens will expel only the urates leaving just the white color behind. This happens primarily overnight. We would be concerned about the urates being in the nest boxes. Chickens love to sleep and poop in their nest boxes, but it is unsanitary. So we recommend blocking the boxes in the late afternoon to prevent the hens from roosting in them.


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Please note that although our team has dozens of years of experience, we are not licensed veterinarians. For serious life and death matters, we advise you to consult with your local veterinarian.

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